Thursday, February 28, 2013

Dembski Repeats the Same Tired Nonsense

Here's a video of Bill Dembski repeating the same old nonsense about intelligent design. Want to know why intelligent design is dead? Because even its leading proponents have nothing new to say.

- "specified complexity" and "complex specified information": incoherent, useless concepts that have been debunked long ago by me and many others

- the movie Expelled shows how intelligent design advocates get discriminated against (see here for the real story)

- same grotesque slurs against legitimate researchers, implying they've done something underhanded by "smuggling in" information

- same martrydom about how his career has been damaged by evil Darwinists.

- same mystical view of "information", without understanding how it can be created by any random process.

- same claim about prime numbers implying intelligence, even though there is evidence that natural processes that can generate them (e.g., cicada periodicity to avoid predation).

And he still doesn't understand that evolution doesn't have a goal and that evolutionary fitness landscapes come from the environment.

My Review of Chaitin

My review of Gregory Chaitin's book, Proving Darwin: Making Biology Mathematical, has finally appeared here.

Bottom line: Chaitin has an interesting idea, but it's a small idea expressed poorly, and will likely have very little impact on either biology or mathematics.

Thursday, February 21, 2013

How Did This Guy Ever Get Elected?

The spectacle of George Galloway, British MP, walking out of a debate because his opponent was an Israeli, is appalling. How did he ever get elected?

Saturday, February 16, 2013

Woodworth: If You Didn't Support My Motion, It's Because of "Ideology, Political Bias, or Personal Interest"

According to a letter in our local newspaper, our local MP, Stephen Woodworth thinks that the only reason people didn't support his Motion 312 was "ideology, political bias or personal interest": "[Trudeau's] opposition to the evidenced-based study of a law denying the equal worth and dignity of same human beings, in the Motion 312 vote a few short months ago, was a triumph of ideology, political bias or personal interest over policy creation based on evidence, fact, and sound principle."

I guess it couldn't possibly be that most MP's viewed Woodworth's motion as a transparent ploy to head down the road to outlaw abortion. I guess it couldn't possibly be that Woodworth, as a devout Catholic, subscribes to any "ideology" himself.

(And I don't know what "same human beings" means.)

New Online Journal Publishes Tripe about Gödel

A new online journal, Sententias, has published its first issue. It claims to be devoted to "philosophy, theology, and science", but its real goal can be deduced by clicking on the tab labeled "ministry tools". Why, all academic journals come with "ministry tools", don't they?

The first issue is not promising at all. One article is entitled "The argument from reason and incompleteness theorems" by Ryan Thomas. The author writes about Gödel's theorems, but it's clear he doesn't understand them. Too bad Thomas did not read Torkel Franzén's book, Gödel's Theorem: An Incomplete Guide to Its Use and Abuse; he might have saved himself some embarrassment.

Thomas thinks that Gödel proved that "within a consistent and complete set of axioms there will be at least one statement that is improvable within the system" and "a consistent and complete set of axioms cannot demonstrate its own consistency". Leaving aside the strange use of "improvable" instead of "unprovable", and leaving aside that one does not usually talk about being "within" a set of axioms, Thomas misses the point. The important thing is not that a logical theory has statements that are unprovable -- after all, we'd be unhappy if false statements had proofs in our theory. The interesting facet is the existence of true statements that have no proofs in the theory. Furthermore, Thomas doesn't seem to know that Gödel's theorem does not apply to all axiom systems, but only ones that are sufficiently powerful. There do indeed exist logical theories that can prove their own consistency.

Thomas thinks that Gödel's theorem has some profound consequences for understanding the human brain -- but this is a common misconception. Gödel's theorem is about logical deductions from axioms; but this is only one small and relatively unimportant facet of human reasoning. Most of our reasoning - even down to the level of assigning meanings to words and connecting those words to the physical world - seems probabilistic in nature. We use probabilistic reasoning all the time without being excessively worried about proving its "completeness" or "consistency"; why should logical deduction be any different?

Judging from Thomas's contribution, this journal has an inauspicious debut.

Friday, February 15, 2013

Callan Bentley is My New Hero

The Discovery Institute requests the right to us a photo by geology prof Callan Bentley. Bentley replies, and hilarity ensues.

Hey, they don't call it the "Dishonesty Institute" for nothing.

Thursday, February 14, 2013

God and Reason - Week 4

I didn't get a chance to attend the "God and Reason" course, Week 4, so you can head over to Jeff Orchard's blog to find the answer to "Doesn't the church produce hypocrites and injustices?"

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Happy Darwin Day!

Today is the 204th birthday of Charles Darwin, one of the greatest scientists of all time, and the person who contributed most to our understanding of human origins.

Think you know a lot about Darwin? Then, without using Google try this Darwin trivia quiz and report your score. You can answer in the comments, but all comments will be held for 24 hours today.

  1. Who was the naturalist on board the Beagle?
  2. What other famous person was born the same day as Darwin?
  3. What denomination of UK currency has a picture of Darwin?
  4. What common household item is associated with Darwin's wife?
  5. What is the correct full title of Darwin's 1859 book? (Even Dawkins got it wrong recently.)
  6. What is the name of Darwin's house in Kent?
  7. Name a single species named after Darwin.
  8. What occupation did Darwin originally plan to pursue?
  9. What, as a young man, did Darwin spend his time collecting?
  10. Where is the largest city named after Darwin located?

Friday, February 08, 2013

Minnesota Moose Misery

From Greg Laden, here's the sad story about the decline of the Minnesota moose.

Thursday, February 07, 2013

The Advantage to Living in Canada

I will miss the penny, I really will. And Canadians are sometimes too subservient to authority. But I have to say that one clear advantage to living in Canada is that reasonable societal changes like this one (and the metric system, and gay marriage, and the adoption of OHIP) are not routinely derailed by breathtakingly insane opposition that resorts to rhetoric like "lies from the pit of hell".

Wednesday, February 06, 2013

God and Reason 3 - After the Course

After the third lecture in the "God and Reason" course I fell into conversation with someone I assume is a Waterloo undergraduate. Intelligent and articulate, he asked me some questions about my worldview and made a number of questionable claims. I don't know his name, but I'll refer to him as "M".

M has a pre-scientific view of the world and believes in spirits, souls, and so forth. I have done my best to reconstruct his claims, but if I am wrong in any particular I would be happy to correct it.

M does not accept the theory of evolution. He agrees that "microevolution" takes place, but does not accept "macroevolution". [See here and here for brief responses.] He asked me, "Were you there?" in response to my listing some of the evidence for evolution; this is a typical ploy of the creationist Ken Ham. However, M has never taken a course in evolutionary biology. (Here is how paleontologist George Gaylord Simpson would respond: "If a sect does officially insist that its structure of belief demands that evolution be false, then no compromise is possible. An honest and competent biology teacher can only conclude that the sect's beliefs are wrong and that its religion is a false one. It is not the teacher's duty to point this out unnecessarily, but it is certainly his duty not to compromise the point.")

M thinks there is no problem of pain for animals because animals don't have souls. (Theologian William Lane Craig has made some related claims, to which you can see good responses here.)

M thinks that the historicity of Jesus is the "most well-supported of any figure in the ancient world". He believes there are secular references to Jesus as early as 15 years after his death. This is not so. I gave him my e-mail address and asked for an example. So far nothing has come.

M tried a version of Plantinga's evolutionary argument against naturalism, but he wasn't quite sure where he was going and he eventually gave up with that.

M thinks that his god sets an absolute standard of right and wrong. He is completely fine with the slaughter of the Midianites (even the children), as depicted in the Bible. Although M believes that the Ten Commandments set this absolute standard (and prohibit murder), he also stated that if his god told him to kill someone, he would.

In many ways M seems typical of the hundreds of Christian evangelicals I've talked with in my life. I hope that a university education will broaden his horizons a bit and he will learn more about the theory of evolution and the evidence for it before he rejects it.

Tuesday, February 05, 2013

God and Reason - Lecture 3 - John North - The Problem of Pain

I attended the third lecture in the "God and Reason" short course given by Christian professors at my university. (This time I was also able to stay for the question-and-answer period, since my son's soccer schedule has a week break in it. I probably won't be able to do that in the future.)

This week's lecture was delivered by Prof. John North of the English department. I have known John North for 20 or so years, back to when our university had a weekly staff and faculty newspaper edited by Chris Redmond, the Gazette. He wrote good letters to the editor about the importance of the library for the University and the importance of scholarship. He is a scholar of some repute in his own field, too. And I learned some other impressive things about him that I didn't know before (more on this below).

Once again the talk was well-delivered (not a big surprise since Prof. North has won a teaching award) and easy to follow. Despite this, I would say that the emphasis was much more on the "god" and hardly at all on the "reason". And despite it supposedly being about "the problem of pain", more time was devoted to a summary of the dogma believed by most Christians. As usual, my comments are in brackets.

Prof. North started with answers to the argument that "a good God would not allow pain". (He gave as examples tsunamis and animal suffering.) He gave the following answers:

Answer 1: "because I cannot see the value in pain, there must be none" is unwarranted self-confidence, cf. God's answer to Job. [This is only relevant if one assumes that there is a god that has some plan that involves pain. But if one is simply trying to decide if a god's supposed attributes fit the evidence we see, then this answer doesn't really address the evidence.]

Answer 2: "to be free is to be free to choose evil with its consequences". Not to be free is to be an automaton. [I found this extremely unsatisfying. The best rejoinder I have heard is from the physicist Stephen Weinberg: "It seems a bit unfair to my relatives to be murdered in order to provide an opportunity for free will for Germans, but even putting that aside, how does free will account for cancer? Is it an opportunity of free will for tumors?"]

Answer 3: C. S. Lewis, "They say of some temporal suffering, 'No future bliss can make up for it,' not knowing that Heaven, once attained, will work backwards and turn even that agony into a glory." [Assumes facts not in evidence. We have no evidence of "Heaven", or backward causality. Are we supposed to accept this just because C. S. Lewis says so? How can C. S. Lewis possibly know with any certainty about this supposed glory? It reminds me of Ambrose Bierce's classic definition of faith: "belief without evidence in what is told by one who speaks without knowledge, of things without parallel."]

Why pain? He gave two answers: protection for our body, and protection for our soul.

He discussed his work as a volunteer chaplain at our local hospital, where he is on class for 2 shifts from 7 PM to 7 AM to help comfort dying people. He estimates that he has helped over 800 people on their deathbeds, by comforting them through prayer and Bible reading. [This is an impressive commitment to people who are suffering.]

The rest of the talk was an exposition of what many Christians believe, in an evangelical mode. I tried to write down some of it but the parade of Bible quotes was too familiar and boring. Here are a few things:

"unless you are converted and become as little children, you will by no means enter the kingdom of heaven." --- Matthew 18.

[Here we have Christian exclusivity -- only Christianity has the answer and you won't enter heaven unless you accept everything Christians say as gospel. And we also have the denial of intellect and reason -- you must think like a child, not as an adult.]

"Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength. The second is this: 'Love your neighbor as yourself.' There is no commandment greater than these." -- Mark 12:30-31.

[This kind of stuff disgusts me. Here we have the spectacle of a god commanding everybody to love him -- the kind of megalomaniacal behavior we would rightly shun or laugh at if it came from a friend or family member. Yet we are supposed to view god as some cosmic Mafioso and rejoice in it. I find that sick.]

The Apostle's Creed: "I believe in God, the father almighty..."

Christians are guilty: "For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven. (Matthew 5:20)

"For whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles at just one point is guilty of breaking all of it." (James 2:10)

[Here we have a clear violation of the principle of proportionality - a basic principle of law recognized in almost all human societies, namely, that punishment should be proportionate to the crime. Another example of how Jesus' teachings are not models of ethical behavior.]

"If anyone, then, knows the good they ought to do and doesn’t do it, it is sin for them."

"Confession, repentance, and forgiveness is the only hope
- between myself and God - between myself and every other person."
This, Professor North asserted, is the ultimate solution to the problem of pain.

[Of course, it is no solution at all. "Confession, repentance, and forgiveness" did nothing for my relatives who were murdered by their Christian neighbors in the Holocaust. "Confession, repentance, and forgiveness" did nothing for my father who died of Alzheimer's. And it does nothing for the millions of people who lived throughout time before the supposed revelation of Jesus and nothing for the millions of people alive today who have never heard the message of Christianity. This is just a cop-out.]

"Only Jesus Christ, God become man, is big enough to forgive me. Forgiveness costs. Ever tried it? Accusing is more common. "The Accuser" is one of the names of Satan."

"Jesus is the creater and sustainer of the universe, the stars, galaxies, insects, and every person."

[So then, Jesus is also the creator and sustainer of killer tsunamis, the Black Plague, and all the mass murderers that have ever lived, including Hitler. Nice guy!]

"Jesus died for me, rose again for me, ascended into heaven. He sees every sparrow that falls."

[He may see every sparrow fall, but he doesn't help them. Isn't it strange that Jesus can do parlor tricks like turn water into wine, but he can't stop world hunger?]

"200,000 Christians are martyred every year." [Probably exaggerated; searches reveal many different such claims, with no really definitive source or account of methodology.]

"Why are people killing Christians?" [For most of them, probably the same reason they kill Muslims and atheists: for personal gain, because of ethnic tensions, because they are "different", and because their religion and culture tells them they should.]

At that point the floor was opened for questions. I asked about the millions of people who lived before Jesus and the millions of people who live today without ever having heard of Jesus. If the "solution to the problem of pain" is "confession, repentance, forgiveness" then all those millions cannot have any solution for their pain. (This is one of the reasons I abandoned Christianity long ago.)

I know that some Christians respond to the effect that the Christian god's existence is obvious to everyone and therefore no one has any excuse to not believe. Of course, this isn't so; monotheism is a relatively recent invention and polytheism was a common belief for thousands of years. Prof. North answered somewhat differently: that in the future all time, both past and future, will become present. And, further, that everyone walks around with a hole in their hearts that only the Christian god can fill. Finally, he said there are some things that he doesn't understand about his god, but he believes nevertheless.

[You can see here how reason has been abandoned. There is no evidence that in the future 'all time will become present time'; this is just meaningless verbiage concocted out of thin air.]

Now, here is my solution to the problem of pain: pain is an evolved response that is present in people, just like every other mammal. The effect of pain is to help an animal avoid harm in the environment, such as extreme heat, extreme cold, bodily damage, and so forth. As social animals, we have also evolved standards of behavior that we share with other primates (see, e.g., the work of Frans de Waal) and many of us can feel pain if we do not live up to these standards. We can also feel pain if life goals (such as love and reproduction) are stymied. Pain systems are not perfect and sometimes go wrong, causing people to feel pain even in the absence of harmful stimuli (e.g., phantom limb pain). Pain is not divine retribution and needless suffering does not enoble you. There is no inherent "meaning" in suffering, although some people may find their own personal meaning through it, and some people may learn empathy through it. Through science we have found methods for alleviating pain (e.g., anaesthesia, antidepressants). I feel acutely grateful to scientists like Crawford Long and William Morton for their discoveries, which work for everyone, not just members of the same sect.

To me that is a much more satisfying explanation of pain, and it is in accordance with the facts that we see. It doesn't require positing an involved theology with magical beings for which there is no evidence. If the Christian god really wanted to alleviate pain, he could have revealed the recipe for diethyl ether in the bible. He didn't.

If I find the time I will talk about my experiences after the talk.

Monday, February 04, 2013

How I Spend My Time

I bought a desktop task timer and have been using it this year to keep track of my activities at work. Just for fun, here's how I spent last week:

12 hours: Teaching CS 365 (includes teaching, preparing for teaching, making up problem sets, making up solutions, office hours, and answering student questions)
16 hours: Teaching CS 462 (same list as above, plus marking)
5 hours: answering e-mail
3 hours: talking with graduate students
5 hours: editorial duties for the journals I edit
1 hour: miscellaneous organizational tasks
1 hour: research

Total this week: 43 hours (we are paid for 35). During a non-teaching term, I spend much less time teaching and much more time on research, refereeing, and so forth.

Sunday, February 03, 2013

More Silliness about Infinity

Once again we have someone claiming that infinity does not exist in the real world, and giving Hilbert as proof. The last time it was William Lane Craig and Kirk Durston. Now it's Uthman Badar, Australian Muslim advocate:

Start watching at 1:08:12. He says,

"I agree there's no problem with infinity in mathematics or in physics or in other studies. That's not the point. There's a difference between infinity, the potential infinity as an idea and actual infinity in the real world. Don't take my word for it, here's what the mathematicians say. David Hilbert ... is a renowned mathematician of the, or was, of the 20th century after whom Hilbert spaces and Hilbert operators that are prevalent in quantum mechanics is used, he said, "The infinite is nowhere to be found in reality. It neither exists in nature nor provides a legitimate basis for rational thought. The role that remains for the infinite to play is solely that of an idea."

Kasner and Newman, contemporary renowned mathematicians: "The infinite certainly does not exist in the same sense that we say there are fish in the sea. Existence in the mathematical sense is wholly different from existence of objects in the physical world."

There's no way in the real world, within our sensorially perceivable naturally world within space time that infinity can exist. If it does, you end up with a whole host of contradictions. If we had an infinite number of people in the room and five have left, how much do we have? An infinite number of people! But five have left! So, there's a distinction between the idea of infinity and the ontological reality of infinity in the real world."

Krauss's response is good. First, Hilbert was not a physicist, but a mathematician; his opinion about physical reality was not definitive back in 1926, when his article was written, and it is certainly not definitive now. Hilbert provided no empirical evidence that the infinite cannot exist in nature, and these days, physicists routinely consider the possibility of various aspects of infinity in nature. Does it or doesn't it? We don't know for sure, but we can't rule it out by Hilbert-style thought experiments alone.

Second, Uthman starts with a premise like `you can fit an infinite number of people in a finite room' (not an exact quote), which nobody is asserting. Then he asserts a contradiction where none exists. Yes, it's true that if you remove a finite number of items from an infinite set, the resulting set is still infinite. Why is this a contradiction? The answer is, it's not. Infinite quantities don't behave like finite ones, so they may not match the average person's intuition, but that's not the same as a "contradiction".